Southampton: Pre-tournament favourites. The team to beat. In red-hot form.
These are some of the phrases used to describe team India’s run in the 2019 ODI World Cup so far. Four matches, three wins, one point from a wash-out, sitting pretty at fourth in the league table with five games in hand – the Men in Blue have had a stroll in this tournament thus far.
It isn’t meant as disrespect, not to them or their opposition, no. From the very outset, Virat Kohli was clear that the start mattered, and they made it count. India beat South Africa in a very calculative manner; Australia were beaten by intensity; Pakistan were simply blown away. It has been hard work, no two ways about it. And the easy path they find themselves on now has been self-orchestrated.
So, here we stand – mid-way through the tournament and the Indian team has just come off another five-day gap between matches. They took two days off after the win over Pakistan, and then the pre-match day before the Afghanistan game was also off. The team management is making sure these players are amply rested so they can flick on the switch when on the field. The schedule is playing into their hands too.
It is not to say that they don’t have troubles. Shikhar Dhawan being ruled out is one of them. This is a batsman who averages 65.15 (20 matches) in ICC events as opposed to a career average of 44.91. A third of his ODI hundreds have come in World Cups and Champions Trophies. This is a batsman who had continued that same fine form this time around as well, scoring a century whilst carrying a fractured thumb.
Bottom-line being Dhawan is part of a top-order trio also involving Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli that has contributed nearly 55 per cent of India’s ODI runs since the 2017 Champions Trophy. This trio looks to bat deep every single time, and Dhawan is a major cog of that wheel, in terms of not letting the run-rate drop. Look at it whichever way you want, he is a big loss in statistical terms.
Yet, India have shrugged and moved on. For any team in contention for the big prize, missing out on such an impactful player ought to be worrisome. Not for this side, not at the moment at least. The ease with which KL Rahul slotted himself at the top of the order against Pakistan didn’t make for any wonderment. Yes, when batting in the middle, he can sometimes look like an out-of-sorts player. Not at the top – not where he belongs – and Rahul made it count in a high-pressure situation against the arch-rivals.
It is a strange situation, abnormal even. Here is a team that has lost a pivotal batsman, and they are not flustered by it, for the incoming replacement can have a similar impact in the middle order. At what ought to be a delicate stage in the tournament, India’s only headache is whether to continue playing Vijay Shankar, or indeed, introduce Rishabh Pant into the mix.
On Wednesday, Shankar had taken a hit on the toe from an inswinging Jasprit Bumrah yorker. While he was bandaged on Thursday, the all-rounder took part in a fitness test on Friday, even as the remainder of the squad enjoyed another off day. Oh, and, Bhuvneshwar Kumar was part of the fitness test too, perhaps to ascertain how far he is from full fitness.
Shankar may or may not play on Saturday, albeit he was chirpy and confident in the pre-match conference. Kumar though will definitely not play. As such, it is an open secret that Mohammad Shami will step in for sharing the new balls with Bumrah for at least the next two matches. The Indian team management desperately wants Kumar to be fit for the high-profile clash against England on June 30.
And so, there is only one quandary for Virat Kohli when he picks the team – Shankar or Pant? Ideally, if fully fit, this is a no-brainer; the all-rounder did well enough in Manchester to merit another go. Then again, Pant has been flown in, not as a back-up keeper but as a middle-order batsman. If the team management wants to initiate him into the tournament early to get him ready for sterner tests ahead, this is the time – and opposition – to do it.
The only question to ask here is, if India would rather have an extra bowling option at hand (read Shankar) even if not needed against Afghanistan and thus proceed with the same combination?
In all this chatter about India, and how they are on a roll at the moment, the Afghans are in danger of getting lost. Maybe they already are, for the noises emanating from their dressing room aren’t heartening. It is a different tune than the one we are used to from Afghan cricketers – one of daredevilry, of magic, of putting up a fight even in a lost cause.
That very fight seems to have gone out of them. From their tournament opener against Australia, to their spanking against England, there is a discernable change in body language. One school of thought suggests they are finding conditions very difficult to cope with given a lack of experience. The other school of thought says that their spinners simply haven’t come into the game with batsmen not providing enough runs.
There are other factors at play too. The change in captaincy hasn’t gone down well and mood in the dressing room continues to sour. So much so, all Afghan cricketers have stopped taking questions about it in media sessions. And then there was a pre-match altercation at a restaurant in Manchester, with the police arriving on scene, which has further added to distractions.
In summation, this isn’t the free-spirited Afghanistan team we have come to expect. And they will be walking a tight rope once again on Saturday. Team India is equally adept at batting or bowling first, and if they win the toss, their decision will perhaps come down to the extent of mercy they want to show to this weakling opposition.